Remarks I gave on Founders Day at West Virginia Wesleyan in introducing my teacher, mentor, and friend — Larry Parsons – who received a Doctor of Humane Letters degree . . .

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver asks this question at the end of her poem “The Summer Day.” Oliver is famous for her pointed, probing questions, for poetry of such devastating beauty that when her queries come—sometimes at the end, sometimes in the middle, occasionally throughout a poem—the reader is often a little disoriented, a little undone by their sharpness, their clarity, their pinpoint precision at going to the heart of what it means to be a fully alive, fully engaged human being in this world. You find, sometimes, that you don’t have a good answer to Oliver’s piercing questions, but you want to, and so they stay with you, and you think about them: while you’re making dinner or going for a run or trying to sleep.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

When I think about this question and all of the contexts within which it might be fruitful to ask it, I think about the life and legacy of Larry Russell Parsons. Not that I have ever heard Dr. Parsons ask this question—at least not overtly, at least not in the kind of bare-faced, unabashed way that Oliver poses it at the end of her poem. But in reflecting on the shape of Larry’s life and loves, on the practice of his pedagogy and on the arc of a long career of nurturing and loving the students under his care, this question keeps insinuating itself.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

For whether you were in Concert Chorale, hammering out the notes, measure by measure, of a difficult piece, or having a personal conversation with Dr. P about your major or, more likely, about your life, fraught as it was with uncertainty, afflicted as you were with restlessness and indecision, you sensed over and over that for him the particulars of our day-to-day existence—making music, reading books, attending to friendships, making a beautiful dinner—these were about making a life; they were the raw materials of our life’s work—the work of being present in this world, indeed of loving it, of paying attention, of learning, quite simply, to stand still and be astonished.

Larry never presumed to tell you what to do with your one wild and precious life. He didn’t give career advice or tell you what occupation you might be suited for. Rather, he gently helped you to see what your vocation is—what your calling is in this world, regardless of what you get paid to do. Your job might be that of an organist or an orthodontist, but your vocation is to live purposefully, gratefully this one wild and precious life you’ve been given. And Dr. Parsons helped you to see this by simply (simply!) bearing witness himself to what a life well-lived might look like, to what it means to be present, to love, to pay attention, to stand still in this world and be astonished.

And in this work and witness he has been mindful, it seems to me, of at least two things: excellence and beauty.

In his work with Wesleyan students from the late 1960s until more than a decade into the new millennium; in his generous offering of his time and talent in bringing many forms of musical artistry to the citizens of West Virginia; in his considerable accomplishments these last several years as Dean of the college—in all of this and more, one sees over and over that for Larry Parsons excellence is the thing. If, as Aristotle said, excellence is about cultivating those habits and practices that help us achieve the good that inheres in any task worth doing, Dr. Parsons has shown us this work—this joyful, holy work—through the slow example of a lifetime.

And beauty.

It’s Mary Oliver again who nails the questions for us:

Have you figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

For all the stresses and strains in this era of higher education, with its emphasis on student assessment and measurable learning outcomes, I’ve taken great comfort in the fact that Dean Parsons is that rare administrator who knows what beauty is for, who knows that we cannot be fully alive, fully engaged human beings without beauty in our day-to-day existence—the beauty of Creation and of human relationships, the beauty of poetry, science, music, art. And that cultivating a love of beauty in students—whether you are teaching them Mozart or microbiology—is slow, patient work that will change their lives. For good. Forever. Attending to beauty, cultivating a love of it in the young—this work is not easily (if ever) quantifiable or measurable; it is not readily reportable, with a click of a mouse, on an online data form.

Have you figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

In his forty-plus years at West Virginia Wesleyan Dr. Parsons has introduced us to much beauty; he has inspired us to love the beautiful because he loves it. He has shown us what beauty is for, and he has changed lives.

Dr. Parsons: today we honor you for these gifts and for so many more. Our lives are infinitely richer for having known and loved you, for having been known and loved by you.

Thank you for bearing witness to a life well-lived. Thank you—teacher, mentor, friend—for what you have done with your one wild and precious life.